Iowa State only had six wins while playing a brutal schedule, but one of those victories cost its opponent a spot in the BCS championship game.
Rutgers can only blame itself for not staying in the hunt for a BCS bowl bid.
The battle-tested Cyclones try to register just their second winning season in six years when they take on the Scarlet Knights in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Friday.
Iowa State lost its last three games of 2010 to finish 5-7 and miss out on a bowl game, a year after coach Paul Rhoads took over and the Cyclones beat Minnesota 14-13 at the Insight Bowl in their first postseason appearance since 2005.
Their chances of playing in a second bowl game in three years looked pretty good after opening this season with three wins in a row, but they followed with four straight losses - three to ranked teams.
Iowa State ended that skid by beating then-No. 19 Texas Tech 41-7 in Lubbock on Oct. 29, the first of three straight wins. The last one helped changed the landscape of the BCS title picture.
The Cyclones rallied from a 17-point deficit in the third quarter to beat then-No. 2 Oklahoma State 37-31 in overtime Nov. 18. That was the Cowboys' only loss, eventually causing them to finish third in the BCS standings behind LSU and Alabama and miss out on playing for the national championship.
"That definitely catches the eye of everybody," Rutgers defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. "They beat the No. 2 team in the country.
"So, we know they're pretty good."
Iowa State, however, didn't win again, losing 26-6 at then-No. 12 Oklahoma and 30-23 at then-No. 16 Kansas State to end the regular season. Of the Cyclones' six losses, five came against ranked teams.
Rhoads believes those defeats have helped Iowa State, and he is especially encouraged after the Cyclones (6-6) almost pulled off another upset against the Wildcats before being stuffed on fourth-and-short on their final drive.
"We are thrilled to have the chance to extend our season with a bowl trip to New York City," said Rhoads, who received a 10-year, $20 million contract Dec. 16. "Our team has improved all season and is playing its best football. Every year we start with a goal of winning a bowl game and we'll have that opportunity in the Pinstripe Bowl against an outstanding Rutgers team."
Unlike Iowa State, Rutgers' opponents rarely cracked the Top 25.
The Scarlet Knights (8-4) only faced one ranked team, allowing 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose 41-31 at home to then-No. 25 West Virginia on Oct. 29.
Still, Rutgers headed into its final game with a chance to win a share of its first Big East title and stay on track for the conference's automatic bid to a BCS bowl.
Visiting a Connecticut team that entered with a 4-6 record, the Scarlet Knights committed six turnovers, allowed their second-most points of the season and fell behind by 30 in the third quarter en route to a 40-22 loss Nov. 26.
While coach Greg Schiano said he felt like he got "punched in the stomach 50 times" after losing to UConn, he's happy for the opportunity to play in the Pinstripe Bowl after Rutgers ended a five-year streak of bowl appearances by going 4-8 in 2010.
"I don't take it for granted, but some maybe took it for granted that, oh we'll go to a bowl game after going for five straight years," Schiano said. "Then you are sitting home last year watching everyone else and it eats at you.
"As I said last year, there is only one way to get that feeling gone and that is now. We are going back to a bowl and the postseason. It is big."
The Scarlet Knights also are going back to Yankee Stadium, where they beat Army 27-12 on Nov. 12, and are counting on many of their fans to make the trip to the Bronx from their New Jersey campus.
"This allows us to get some more work while playing in the Pinstripe Bowl and playing here at home in New York," Schiano said. "This gives a lot of our fans who maybe can't always afford to travel to a bowl game the opportunity to experience a bowl game at a much more reasonable expense. It is going to be a great opportunity for our players."
Schiano's top players are wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and linebacker Khaseem Greene.
Sanu was a unanimous first-team Big East selection after setting a school and conference record with 109 receptions. He had 1,144 yards and seven touchdowns, both second-most in the league.
Greene was named co-Big East defensive player of the year after leading the conference with 127 tackles, the most by a Scarlet Knight since Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett had 130 in 2002.
Among the standouts on Iowa State's defense is senior Ter'Ran Benton, who led the team with three interceptions and is particularly excited to be ending his career in a bowl game.
"Last year we were one win short and lost the last one," Benton told the Cyclones' official website. "Looking in the seniors' eyes, going home early, it just makes you feel like you're missing out. To be going bowling my senior year, it means a lot."
Iowa State's offense is led by freshman quarterback Jared Barnett, inserted as the starter in late October. Barnett passed for 1,178 yards with six TDs and six interceptions in seven games while also running for 435 yards and a score.
He threw for season bests of 376 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 84 yards in the upset of Oklahoma State.
Rutgers has won four straight bowl games after losing its first under Schiano in 2005. Iowa State's 2009 bowl win under Rhoads was just its third in 10 all-time appearances.
"Paul is a heck of a football coach and a great person," Schiano said. "It is going to be two very similar teams going at each other for sure in the philosophy and how hard they play."